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Hacking Stereotypes

September 20, 2011

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Ask someone to picture a Harvard University computer hacker plotting the next gangbusters Web app, and chances are he will conjure Jesse Eisenberg’s take on Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network: duplicitous, territorial, all-knowing, and ultimately alone.

Visit the Harvard campus just before midnight on a Tuesday and you might see something different. About a dozen student hackers convene in a cozy room near the northern edge of campus, talking and tapping at their keyboards. An episode of “Family Guy” plays on a flat-screen TV on one side of the room. There is a Foosball table in the corner, next to a pile of black and orange beanbag chairs. But most of the hackers are gathered around tables in front of their screens, eating pizza and talking in a jargon-heavy patois.

Some are coding applications they hope could become the next Facebook, Blackboard, or Dropbox. But the students are hardly being coy about their ideas, nor are they reluctant to admit if they lack the coding skills to turn their ideas into working applications — the fatal flaw of Divya Narendra and the Winklevoss twins, who lacked the programming skills to code their networking site and thus enlisted Zuckerberg, whom they later accused of stealing their idea. Soon these burgeoning hacker-entrepreneurs will move into a classroom in the Maxwell Dworkin Laboratory, where they will take turns giving demos of their unfinished projects and getting feedback from their would-be competitors.

This is no battle royale for the next billion-dollar idea. It’s “Hack Night” at Harvard, and the students are here to help each other.

“We personally believe that if you have an idea, you should share it and find out as much as possible,” says Julia Mitelman, one of the leaders of HackHarvard, the student club responsible for the weekly Hack Night.

Later that evening, Mitelman, a junior majoring in psychology, will put her money where her mouth is, soliciting feedback on an idea she has for a website that lets students review and recommend summer internships to friends and classmates online.

Mitelman says she has fielded e-mails from students who are interested in the club but anxious about sharing their ideas with other coder-entrepreneurs. But caginess is not welcomed at Hack Night. “Our belief is the people who keep those things hidden will not be as successful,” Mitelman says.

HackHarvard, which is in only its second semester, operates on two premises: that most students cannot turn good ideas into operational apps, nor operational apps into successful businesses, without help; and that there are plenty of good ideas to go around. The club's leaders describe it as an incubator where students can get feedback on their ideas, learn the nuts and bolts of building Web applications, and meet with like-minded peers and potential collaborators.

If Narendra and the Winklevoss twins were searching for a classmate to code HarvardConnection today, HackHarvard is probably where they would look. If they had gone to a Hack Night, they might have even learned to code the site themselves.

The social media tech boom, which started with Facebook, has coincided with a resurgent interest in computer programming at Harvard, particularly among novices. After topping out at 386 during the height of the '90s tech boom, enrollment in Harvard's introductory course in programming, known as “CS50,” fell precipitously after that bubble burst. In 2002, fewer than 100 students took the course. Then, in 2007, the college revamped the course to make it less wonky and esoteric. By that time, venture capital had begun flowing to social networking start-ups that investors hoped would follow in Facebook's footsteps — or at least get caught in its orbit. And although The Social Network was not yet on the big screen, the story of Facebook's hapless non-founders was widely known and had a clear moral: in the landscape of tech entrepreneurship, the power lies with those who have good ideas and know how to code them.

This fall CS50 drew 651 students, becoming the second most popular course at Harvard.

HackHarvard was not originally conceived as an incubator for future Silicon Valley darlings. Before it morphed into an entrepreneurial club, Hack Harvard was a winter term workshop conceived by the Harvard student government. The idea was to harness the newfound interest in coding to encourage CS50 students and other programmers to develop Web apps aimed at improving student life on campus, says Eric Hysen, one of the group’s founders.

Hysen, who now works as a software engineer for Google, was vice president of Harvard’s Undergraduate Student Council last year. One of his campaign promises had been to “bring student life online.” As the fall 2010 semester drew to a close, Hysen and classmate David Kosslyn secured funding to hold a weeklong mini-camp for selected CS50 students who wanted to take their final projects live. Hysen and Kosslyn invited guests to give seminars on road-testing their apps, designing user interfaces, and getting venture funding.

And, of course, they coded.

“The first all-nighter was two days in,” says Hysen. “At the end of the week, we decided we needed to keep it going.” Hack Nights were born.

As with many software apps, HackHarvard evolved and added features. By spring it was no longer a one-off event, but a fledgling club. It began taking over space in the Dworkin Lab each week and holding caffeine- and pizza-fueled coding parties.

It also broadened its aim. “As we kept developing it, we added more and more that would focus on launching projects that might do well commercially as well,” Hysen says. Most projects were still focused on improving student life on campus, but, as Facebook had demonstrated, applications that catch on at Harvard might easily prove popular among all college students.

One HackHarvard-incubated project trying to make that leap is Aid Aide, an app that helps students find financial aid opportunities, decipher forms, and keep track of deadlines: “TurboTax for financial aid,” as founder Zachary Hamed, now a sophomore at Harvard, is fond of calling it.

The HackHarvard team helped Hamed develop the app during the inaugural HackHarvard mini-camp last January. The project later won a $10,000 grant at the annual Harvard Innovation Challenge. It is set to launch as a company this fall.

Entrepreneurial techies at Harvard do toil in the shadow of the infamous founding narrative of Facebook, made newly famous last year with the release of The Social Network. In the film, the Zuckerberg character absconds with his classmates’ idea, builds it into a successful company, then pushes out his best friend Eduardo Saverin, another Harvard student, once they hit it big. (Both Saverin and the Narendra-Winklevoss trio sued Facebook, which settled with them out of court. Another Harvard classmate, Aaron Greenspan, also claimed to have had the idea before Zuckerberg, who has denied wrongdoing repeatedly and disputed the narrative popularized in the film.)

But the members of HackHarvard do not seem anxious about being usurped by their fellow hackers: the club does not require Hack Night attendees to sign a nondisclosure agreement or any other legal oath, Mitelman says.

“It’s completely informal — we have not yet run into any trouble with [plagiarism],” says Mitelman. “We would like to think that no one here would steal anybody else’s idea,” she says. “Of course, we can’t guarantee that.”

Nor does HackHarvard claim a stake in student projects it “incubates.” Aid Aide might have evolved into a commercial app without help from HackHarvard, or it might not have; either way, the club does not plan to send Hamed any invoices.

And if any Hack Night attendee turns her idea into the next Facebook after picking up some key pointers at Hack Night, Mitelman says she does not expect any members of the group to sue for a cut of the profits. Based on “the general attitude and atmosphere, we do not think that would happen,” she says.

But here, again, Mitelman says she cannot make any guarantees.

It’s 10:45 p.m., and the pizza is gone. Demos don’t usually start until midnight, but since it’s raining and everyone is busy with the stress and obligations of the first week of school, Mitelman and Peter Boyce, another member of the HackHarvard leadership team, decide they had better round up the remaining dozen or so student hackers and cut right to the chase.

Boyce volunteers to go first. With his charismatic grin, dark-gray blazer and pink button-down shirt, Boyce is the antithesis of Eisenberg’s dour, be-hoodied Zuckerberg. The lights go off, and a view of Boyce’s computer screen is projected onto the wall of the classroom. Boyce, a junior applied math major, spent the summer interning in New York, where he made a hobby of poking around the Web for interesting, non-credit classes being held in the city. It occurred to him that other young people looking to edify themselves, or just meet new people, might be interested in what he found — classes such as “Bro Down Showdown,” a cooking class for men looking to charm their way into a date's heart via her stomach.

“People should know that there is a cooking-for-bros class that you can go to,” says Boyce, with ironic zeal. The room laughs in agreement.

So Boyce built extracred.it, a site that lets students sign up for a weekly newsletter informing subscribers of interesting classes around town. It was "a simple hack," he says; coding the site only took a few hours. The beta version of the site invites students to sign up for newsletters in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, or San Francisco.

The audience in the Dworkin classroom playfully "ooohs" and "aaahs" as the site’s wallpaper changes from the New York skyline to the San Francisco skyline as Boyce selects each city from a drop-down menu. But there is a problem. The button that lets visitors share a link to the site on Twitter does not work, and Boyce does not know why. He suspects it’s a problem on Twitter’s end. But a fellow hacker in the audience pipes up and suggests that the disruption might be coming from a line in the website’s underlying code that refers to the adjacent Google+ button. He dictates a keyboard command that calls up the code, points to the problem, and explains how Boyce can fix it.

“See?” says Boyce with a grin. “This is why we hang out.”

For the latest technology news and opinion from Inside Higher Ed, follow @IHEtech on Twitter.

 

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